Monday, May 20, 2024

Getting the Most Out of Fruit in Beer: Jammiest Bit & Fruit of Many Uses

While I love the pure expression of malt, water, hops, microbes, barrel, and time... fruit can make a fantastic addition to a barrel-aged sour. From a "sales" standpoint it is also easier to explain the difference between beers with fruit, than those with subtle differences in grain bill or microbes. Most people know they like cherries, plums, and raspberries... they may not know they enjoy horse blanket, minerality, or rubbery notes. 

This is the third in a series of posts updating my thoughts from American Sour Beers ten years ago. The two beers featured below (Jammiest Bit and Fruit of Many Uses) were both part of the first shipment of the Sapwood Cellars Out of State Shipping Club. Memberships for that shipment are closed, but you can still sign-up now for the next shipment fall 2024 ($146/shipment including shipping). Bottles of both are still available at the tasting room!

Sourcing Fruit

I would almost always rather use fresh in-season local fruit over a puree, juice, freeze-dried, concentrate, and especially natural extract. Local produce tastes unique, meaning a beer that doesn't taste the same as one brewed on the other side of the country or by a larger brewery. You'll get a more complex character from having beer in contact with the stems, skins, pits etc. Working with farms, orchards, and vineyards "fits" the narrative of an artisanal product... making it look good on social media too! Not to mention our fruiting tanks (without conical and glycol jackets) work best with whole fruit rather than purees.

Talking directly to farms and orchards at farmer's markets is a great place to start. Tasting things, chatting about what sort of capacity (and excess) they might have. Sometimes you can get a good deal on seconds... but for me these often aren't worth it since it can take a lot of time and effort to sort them (going rotten before they are all ripe) and cut-out mold etc. 

We've used IQF (Individual Quick Frozen) fruits several times with great results. For smaller batches I've just gone to supermarkets, found a product I like the flavor of... and bought out a couple locations. Online specialty purveyors like Northwest Wild Foods have weird things you might not find locally, like honeyberries. For lager batches we've ordered from Coloma Frozen Foods, but don't do it regularly as refrigerated shipping is expensive. Recently we've been getting our raspberries from Twin Springs Fruit Farm (which freezes their own). Using high-quality frozen fruit is something great lambic breweries do, and it allows to extend the fruiting season so you don't have to have enough tanks for all of your fruit beer at once!

That said, not all fruits are available locally. You can certainly source whole fruits from a good local produce supplier (and we have), but purees have their place too... especially in "smoothie" type sour beers. That said, there is no magic bullet on sourcing them. We've used Oregon Fruit, Greenwood Associates, Kerr/Ingredion, Asceptic Fruit Purees, Hop Havoc, Boiron, FruitGuild, and Araza. None of them are "always good" and none of them are always bad. It's often about preference. For example, Oregon Pineapple is thin, closer to juice, great for an IPA where you'll drop out the solids. Araza Pineapple is much thicker, perfect for a smoothie sour. Both taste great. 

Frozen wine grapes are another great option, either juice or must. Again, I love working with local vineyards (Crow Vineyard and Winery has been especially nice to work with), but that isn't always an option! We've had good luck with Grapes for Wine and Wine Grapes Direct

The only concentrates I've enjoyed are "freeze" concentrates (the wild blueberry and raspberry from Greenwood Associates are great). I've disliked the flavor of all of the standard high-concentration "boiled" concentrates which end up tasting like caramel, and are so thick that they are difficult to mix with beer. Granted, after an early batch with concentrates from Kerr we really haven't tried any more. On the other hand, Kerr's NFC (Not From Concentrate) raspberry juice was terrific, so I suspect the issue was the concentration. 

Freeze-dried fruit can be a pretty good option for tropical fruits like mango. I've yet to find a mango puree that didn't taste cooked. The freeze-dried stuff tends to have a brighter "mango popsicle" flavor. It can be pricy, but there is a lot of flavor pound-for-pound. North Bay Trading generally seems to have the best bulk pricing. 


We have a chest freezer at the brewery so we can keg fruit when it is ready, but not necessarily have to go onto it immediately. Freezing the fruit also helps break the cell walls allowing better/quicker contact and refermentation. Just make sure to line your freezer with cardboard so the bags don't stick to the interior. That's all we do for berries. Freeze them, let them thaw in the tank, then transfer beer on the next day.

When it comes to larger fruits (e.g., stone fruit like peaches and nectarines) we'll manually quarter them and discard the seeds/pits. In an ideal world we'd selectively process and freeze the fruit on a flow basis as it reached peak ripeness.

I've never had good luck with fermented citrus, so for limes, lemons, oranges, and grapefruit we use the zest. We use a Starfrit Electric Rotato Express. It struggles a bit on really large grapefruits, and we go through a couple a year as they just aren't sturdy enough for a "production" environment. 

There is some science that cherry stems have glycosides that Brett can work on to free fruity aromatics... but in practice I find they add a "stemmy" flavor that reminds me of dried leaves. I like the pits though. Obviously nice to find a source that has your preferred processing so you don't have to do it!

However you process the fruit, purge the tank with CO2 thoroughly before transferring beer in. This will help ensure the brightest, freshest, fruit expression possible!


We usually repitch rehydrated (with StartUp/GoFerm) wine yeast along with the fruit to ensure a rapid refermentation, scavenge oxygen, and enhance the fruit character. While our sour beer production area has "light" HVAC, we don't have jackets for our fruiting totes (Flextanks). As a result, we'll change our yeast depending on the seasonal temperature. Usually using more heat-tolerant red wine strains in the summer, and cool-loving whites in the winter. 

We also add a small amount (5-7 PPM) of hop extract to prevent additional acidification if the beer is already sour enough for our tastes. See my article on hopping sours for more details.

Fruit Contact Time

I've slowly come to be an advocate for relatively short contact time, enough to ferment out the sugars, but not much more. This is especially true of raspberries (which develop a "seedy" flavor from extended contact). I've also heard strawberries as a quick-contact to reduce the phenolic "plastic" flavor they can develop. Although I've also read that can be varietal specific, and others claim freeze-drying can help mitigate. 

If I'm aging a beer on raspberries and another fruit that I prefer longer contact, I'll do that separately in two totes. That way we can keg off the raspberry after 10-14 days, while the cherries, wine grapes etc. have a little more contact time (1-2 months). They we blend them together. This could also be accomplished sequentially by racking the beer off of the raspberries and then onto the cherries. 

Separating Fruit and Beer

Our Flextanks have stainless steel filters from Utah Biodiesel Supply fitted over the racking arms with stoppers. A false bottom would likely work even better, but with a slow transfer we haven't had many issues with whole/pieces of fruit. The lone one I remember causing havoc with chunks of frozen mango that totally disintegrated. 

Second Use Fruit

With all the time and effort of getting the fruit and processing it, we often try to get a second beer out of it. Second use fruit is more subtle, allowing a more "beer-forward" balance. You could likely get similar results from ~25% of the fruiting rate, but second use fruit is easier (and free)!

We'll often just push in a single keg of sour beer onto the fruit from a whole batch to "rinse" it. This gets a big fruit character and it's an easy way to make a unique one-off

We'll do a whole new batch onto especially high fruiting rate beers. For example when we did 4 lbs/gal of raspberries in Throwing Hearts with Other Half, we went onto the fruit with a sour red along with vanilla beans to make Galactic Swirl.

For Fruit of Many Uses, we racked the beer sequentially into each tote after a previous beer. Getting Chardonnay grapes (from Field Learning, our Bissell Brothers collab) before going into barrel, followed by raspberries, then cherries (both from Jammiest Bit), and white nectarines (Polite Company). 

We haven't tried it, but I know some brewers who will knock-out fresh wort onto spent fruit as a way to get fruit flavor along with a strong house culture. 

No matter your technique, be extra mindful of limiting oxygen exposure as you won't have refermentation to scavenge oxygen.

Jammiest Bit

Barrel #71 Golden Strong #3 (Pils, 2-row, Chit, Wheat malt, and Flaked Wheat to 1.056 with aged Celia and Lemondrop pellets). Primary fermentation with 58W3 and some microbes from a blend of older barrels that was primarily Yeast Bay Mélange (but also various dregs from Oxbow, Jester King, and Backacre). Then aged 17 months in a second-use Malbec barrel. The culture in the barrel itself was originally derived from a De Garde bottle. 

Barrel #36 Marylambic #7 (Weyermann Barke Pilsner, Flaked Wheat, and Chit to 1.044 with .5 lbs/bbl aged East Kent Goldings). Primary fermentation T58. Then aged 13 months in a third-use Pinot Noir barrel. The microbes in the oak were originally from dregs from two Floodlands bottles. 

Racked into two totes one with 150 lbs Twin Springs Raspberries and the other with 150 Baugher's Orchard Sour Cherries. Both frozen and thawed. Each received 10 g of HopSteiner Alpha Extract, and fresh 71B for refermentation. 

Tasting Notes

Smell - Mix of fresh berries, raspberries more than cherries. Not a hugely complex funky or "Brett-forward" beer, but there is a little lemon and hay Barrel character is hidden behind the fruit as well. 

Appearance - Crystal clear, brilliant red-purple. Light-pink head fizzles quickly, but stays as a thin covering.

Taste - Cherries come through more on the palate. Good fruit intensity, still really fresh/vibrant. Firm acidity, slight sharpness from the malic acid of the cherries? Again not an especially complex or funky beer, but it’s a showcase for good fruit. The Baugher's cherries without stems seems to have been a good choice. A bit sweet which lends a more Flemish Red lean rather than Lambic or Saison.

Mouthfeel - Medium-high carbonation. Medium-light body. 

Drinkability - It grows on me as I drink it and my palate gets used to the acidity.  Good blend of fruit, bright flavor, I just wish the base beer was a little more interesting. 

Changes for Next Time - Wouldn’t mind depitted cherries to make sure we are getting good extraction.

Fruit of Many Uses

Base Beer: Belgian Pale #3

78% Murphy & Rude Virginia Pilsner

18% Murphy & Rude Wheat Malt

4% Murphy & Rude Vienna Malt

OG 1.047

.5 lbs/bbl 5-year-old Australian Summer Hop Pellets

Primary Yeast Lalvin 71-B

Microbes from Chardonnay Grape tote (originally a Bissell Brothers house souring culture they sent for the collab).

Then aged in a third-use Cabernet Sauvignon (microbes originally from Modern Times House of Sand) and Barrel #41 fourth-use merlot barrel for 11 months (microbes in barrel included East Coast Yeast Senne Valley, Bokkereyder dregs, Mad Fermentationist Saison, Casey, and Afterthought dregs)

Racked sequentially onto 150 lbs Twin Springs Raspberries, 150 Baugher's Orchard Sour Cherries, and 250 Twin Springs White Jade Nectarines. 

Tasting Notes

Smell - The berry leads, more cherry than raspberry. Earthy hay, candied fruit salad. The nectarines and grapes don’t shine in the aroma, but they help to send it in a direction that isn’t one-note “berry.” Almost apricot brandy as it warms. I don’t taste anything off from the pits, seeds etc. 

Appearance - Carbonation seems a little low. A hard pour results in only a two-finger white head. A few bubbles rising through the pale body. Good clarity. 

Taste - Pleasantly tart lemony acidity, without being harsh. The nectarine comes through more distinctly on the palate. Finish is berry again, but light, bright, and juicy finish. Non bitterness.

Mouthfeel - Medium carbonation, could be spritzier. Smooth, no astringency. Light body, without being thin. 

Drinkability - Really complex with the different fruit notes coming in and out of awareness. 

Changes for Next Time - The Chardonnay is mostly lost, would be a better feature in a plain beer or maybe light dry hopping. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Let's Talk About Blending Sour Beers: Growth Rings 2023

This is the second in a series of posts each covering an aspect of brewing mixed-fermentation barrel-aged beers where my opinions have changed significantly since I wrote American Sour Beers 10 years ago. Each post will focus on our process, recipe, and results for one of the beers in the Sapwood Cellars Shipping Club (includes 6 bottles, for $146, cancel anytime) - sign-ups for the first box close May 5th! This post covers blending through the lens of Growth Rings 2023 (our blend of 1-, 2-, and 3-year barrel-aged sours). If you are closer to the brewery, May 10th and 11th I'll be doing a talk and vintage sour tasting including pours of Growth Rings 2021 and 2023!

As a homebrewer, my experience with blending was limited to a handful of batches. Over the last six years I've had a hand in blending more than 70 batches of barrel-aged sour beer. So, I thought it would be valuable to give my thoughts on the process, what I've learned to do, and not to do.

Setting Yourself Up For Success

You can't blend great beer if you don't have options. Creating variety starts on brew day and continues through fermentation and aging.

Malt Bills - More so for darker sours, it's good to have options for beers that have different flavors to pull from. Even for pale beers, having different grains (wheat, oats, rye, spelt, light caramel malt etc.), and starting gravities can be valuable for creating range. 

Hopping Rates - As I discussed in my previous post, hopping rate plays a large role in acidity and "funky" aromatics. Bitterness itself can be a valuable flavor in a blend, it's a flavor present in most lambics, and too often missing from American sours. 

Acidity - Having "Brett only" barrels is a good way to ensure you have beer available that won't be too acidic. When a barrel starts getting too sour, we'll often keg it so it is available for blending at a low level for beers that aren't sour enough.

Barrels - A blend of "new" and well-used barrels. Early on all of our barrels were first-use (to us). As a result many of our early releases were too woody, giving "lumber aisle" vibes. Most sour beers are light and delicate and too much oak can overwhelm. At the same time, it's good to retire barrels that aren't producing spectacular beer allowing you to bring in new characterful barrels (we currently have fresh gin, Madeira, PX Sherry etc. aging). If I was starting a new barrel program, I'd soak half of the barrels slated for pale beers with multiple changes of hot water to leach out oak flavor and tannins before filling.

Microbes - It is easiest if you have the same culture in all of the beers/barrels. In that case you don't have to worry about additional attenuation after packaging. For me, it's more valuable to have a variety of microbes for different acid levels and Brett profiles for more dynamic flavor options. As time has gone on we've split the difference, pumping in some of a favorite barrel to a fresh batch, but then going into various barrels with their own cultures. We'll also pitch additional microbes if a barrel isn't headed in a good direction at 6-12 months. 

Ages - It can be helpful to have the same/similar beers of various ages so you can balance flavors. We've gotten better at judging which barrels just need more time, and which are headed in a bad direction and need to be dumped. That said, I don't have as much time to taste/monitor the barrels as I should and I still "miss" some good barrels leaving them in too long until they taste oxidized or off. 

The Mechanics of Blending

Think about the goals before you start. What is the concept? What other ingredients are you adding after blending? What is the target volume? Sometimes it is good to just taste barrels for inspiration, but that can be overwhelming when you have dozens of barrels to select from. I try to set a general schedule before the year starts. It keeps me on track for seasonal ingredients, sourcing barrels for finishing, and utilizing our staff/tank time rather than bunching up releases. I tend to earmark barrels as "potential" candidates for a blend, ideally twice as many barrels as a blend would require. 

From there, I go to our barrel-spreadsheet (more info). I filter for beers with enough age, appropriate bases, removing barrels that are already earmarked for other projects. Lots of releases overlap, say I fill five barrels with sour red and hope to get a two-barrel blend plain and a two-barrel blend with fruit. Hopefully I have an "orphan" barrel that was passed over from last year or another similar base that didn't fit in its blend available for variety. Then I start pulling nails and tasting to gauge my options. I note barrels that need more time and those that are running out of time. Hopefully that narrows down my choices to five barrels at most for a two or three barrel blend. 

Then I pull larger samples of those barrels so I have enough beer for a few blends without having to go back and pull more. When possible, I try to create full-barrel blends, although we occasionally keg-off partial barrels for future blending stock. In the same way if a blend is missing a little something, I'll take a look through our kegs and see if there is an option that satisfies the need. 

I usually break down my options by acidity. If two barrels are a bit too acidic and two are not acidic enough, I'll try blending my favorite from each camp together to see where that gets me. Then swap in the other if there is something that doesn't work. Once I get a solid blend, I might go hunting for a little something extra. For example we were just blending a sour red, and ended up with a little 3+ year-aged Vin de Cereale (strong sour red) as a low-percentage malt-booster bringing perceived sweetness and more oak. 

In terms of the practicalities of blending, I usually use volume. Weight works, but I tend not to worry about extreme precision because the volume in each barrel can differ by 5-10% anyway. For each blend I start with an empty cup to avoid issues with tracking when you take a sip, dose in more and then don't really know the ratio. 

Finally, I write down the winning blend. When possible, I come back and taste the blend on a fresh palate later, ideally with someone who wasn't involved in the initial blend (since that is how the majority of people drinking the beer will approach it). 

Blending takes time and practice, but one thing that has been immensely helpful is blending with other people. Some of my favorite collabs are sensory rather than recipe-based. There isn't often much I get out of brewing a collab beer, instead we invite in other brewers to taste through our barrels and help select a blend, brainstorm adjuncts etc. Sam, Tim, and co. from Other Half helped blend Throwing Hearts. Jennings from Pen Druid came in to blend Life is Ridiculous. Mike Thorpe from Afterthought visited last week to blend an upcoming beer with hardy kiwi and New Zealand hops. We've done similar things on the stout side with Mike Saboe from Toppling Goliath and Eric Padilla from More/Open Outcry. Heck it's just great bringing in homebrew friends with good palates to help taste barrels, bounce ideas off... and just give me an excuse to pull samples!

Recipe: Growth Rings 2023 

Barrel #16 

Beer: Golden Sour (Pils, 2-row, Chit, Wheat Malt, .5 lbs/bbl Aged Hops, 1.056)

Age: 16 Months

Barrel: 5th-fill Pinot Noir American Oak 

Culture East Coast Yeast Flemish Ale

Notes: Rubbery funk, medium acid, bright, good

Barrel #19 

Beer: Rings of Light (2-row, Chit, Malted Wheat, Unmalted Oats, 40 IBUs in Whirlpool, 1.062)

Age: 8 months

Barrel: 4th-fill Chardonnay American Oak. 

Culture: Omega Brett C and Yeast Bay Amalgamation

Notes: Less acidic, funky, bright fruit, rubbery

Barrel #20 

Beer: Marylandbic (Pils, Unmalted Wheat, Chit, .5 lbs/bbl 2014 Celeia pellets, 1.045)

Age: 35 months. 

Barrel: 2nd-fill Chardonnay American Oak. 

Culture: Omega Brett C and Yeast Bay Amalgamation (plus a house culture that was a repitch of a repitch in primary)

Notes: Loamy, a touch stale, bright lactic acid.

Barrel #62 

Beer: Belgian Pale (Pilsner, Wheat Malt, Vienna, 15 IBUs Sterling First Wort, 1.048)

Age: 27 months

Barrel: 2nd-fill Cabernet Franc French Oak

Culture: SARA Saison Bernice

Notes: Sprite, tart, but not highly acidic.

Growth Rings is the rare bottle-conditioned sour that we didn't repitch with wine yeast, a good choice if you're looking to harvest bottle dregs!

Tasting Notes: Growth Rings 2023

(My personal notes from a few months ago)

Smell - Citrusy nose, apricot, hay, bright and fresh. Missing that big rubber that is present in most great lambics. 

Appearance - Pale gold, clear, lots of bubbles, thick head, good retention. Great lacing.

Taste - Delicate acidity. Lemon, apricot, just a touch of rubber. 

Mouthfeel - Snappy carbonation, medium-light body. Lighter bodied than a classic Gueuze. 

Drinkability - In terms of drinkability, it’s my favorite recently. Lively, complex… but it isn't as gueuze-y. 

Changes for Next Time - It has sort of a barrel-aged saison quality more than gueuze. Maybe that fresher whirlpool hop character from Rings of Light… that said I really like the result. 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Brewing Hoppier Sours for Aging: Barrels of Rings

This is the first in a series of posts each covering an aspect of brewing mixed-fermentation barrel-aged beers where my opinions have changed significantly since I wrote American Sour Beers. Each post will focus on our process, recipe, and results for one of the beers in the Sapwood Cellars Shipping Club. This one covers Barrels of Rings, aka our 40 IBU hazy pale ale (Rings of Light) fermented in barrels with house microbes, then dry hopped with Citra Cryo.

The longer I brew mixed-fermentation beers, the more I appreciate just how important the hopping rate is. Controlling lactic acid production by inhibiting lactobacillus is hops' most well-appreciated function in sour beers. Hop compounds become more effective at inhibiting Lactobacillus as the pH drops, creating a natural "limit" on their lactic acid production. What it took me a long time to appreciate was how much hop compounds (beyond IBUs) lead to a greater expression of what I think of as classic Brett "funk."

When Scott and I began the mixed-fermentation program in 2018-2019, generally our issue was beers not souring enough. I started pulling levers (lower hopping rates, higher mash temps, less attenuative primary strains etc.) By 2020-2021, we were having excessive acid production... Most non-fruited beers were dropping to a firmly-acidic 3.1-3.3 pH, while fruited beers were often difficult to drink in quantity at 3.0-3.1 pH with some dipping to "obnoxiously acidic" high-2s. 

Fruit contributes simple sugars, which Lactobacillus love, and at the same time dilute the hop compounds in the beer. This can cause a precipitous pH drop. With so much beer already in barrels, my first maneuver was to begin dosing alpha acids into the beer along with fruit when there was already enough acid. We started with reduced iso-alpha-acids (e.g. tetralone/hexalone), but have moved onto Hopsteiner Alpha Extract 20% since it doesn't add perceived bitterness. About .1-.2 g per gallon stops acid production for our bacteria. These products don't significantly change the flavor or add additional aromatic complexity. As a side benefit, they enhance head retention. A small dry hop at this stage would be another option if you wanted stop acidification and add hop aromatics.


At this point we started upping the aged hop rate, or aiming for higher IBU targets when using fresh hops (~15-20 IBUs). At the same time (~2021) Scott and Ken (our head brewer) wanted to try barrel-aging more aromatically hoppy beers... I was resistant. I love hoppy-sour beers, I did a whole talk about them at the 2016 National Homebrewers Conference. Generally my approach had been to make sure the hops go into the beer as close to serving as possible (e.g., dry hop a barrel-aged sour after aging, brew a quick-turn hoppy Brett saison, add a whirlpool addition after kettle souring). I'd tasted too many barrel-soured IPAs and pale ales from great breweries that smelled like "old hoppy beer." That said, Ken and Scott convinced me! At our scale it is a relatively low risk to divert a few barrels of pale ale to see what happens.

We're already "aggressive" with our measures against oxygen pick-up (purging barrels with carbon dioxide before filling, purging the barrel-tool between each fill, purging the bottles before filling etc.), but when we fill barrels with pale ale wort we pull out all the tricks. Most importantly, we selected barrels that could be refilled without rinsing, leaving several gallons of "house culture" at the bottom of each. Our goal was to start the secondary fermentation as quickly as possible to protect the delicate hop compounds. I was amazed how good the resulting beer tasted!

What has really intrigued me is that the hoppier bases have almost universally produced finished beers I'd describe as more Brett-forward (earthy, funky, fruity, horse blanket). What I don't know is why! In American Sour Beers I cited research that Brett can free glycosides in hops, so that could explain the fruity. Maybe hops are just inhibiting Lactobacillus, giving the Brett a healthier environment (in lambics Brett tends to thrive before Pediococcus dramatically lowers the pH). Maybe I'm just being fooled and higher hopping rates (aged or fresh) are adding key compounds that I associate with the "funk" in a Cantillon, Orval (and many of my favorite American mixed-ferms)! These days our typical hopping rate is .5 lbs/bbl of aged hops at the start of the boil, and .5 lbs/bbl or fresh low alpha-acid hops in the whirlpool. 

Barrels of Rings is one of the bottles included with the first shipment of the Sapwood Cellars Shipping Club. It started as Rings of Lightbrewed summer 2022, racked into barrels after primary fermentation, but before dry hopping. After 10 months of aging, we transfer directly from the two wine barrels into our blending tank (purged with 5.5 pounds of our selected Citra Cryo already in there). We agitated/roused and allowed to settle for a couple days, dropping the hops. Then we primed with sugar and rehydrated wine yeast (as we do for most of our barrel-aged sours) and partially carbonated the beer. As with the barrel fill, we're relying on CO2 purging of the bottles and the rapid refermentation to scavenge oxygen and preserve hop aromatics. 

Recipe: Barrels of Rings

OG: 1.063

65% Briess Brewer's 2-row

14% Great Western Malted White Wheat

13% Grain Millers Flaked Oats

8% Best Chit Malt

IBUs: 40

.5 lbs/bbl Meridian @ Whirlpool (212F)

1 lb/bbl New York Cascade @ Whirlpool (180F)

Bravo Salvo Hop Extract @ Whirlpool (180F)

Fermentation with Omega Cosmic Punch (the barrel sheet below is incorrect)

FG (Primary) 1.022

Brewed 8/5/22. Barrels filled 8/11/22 

Barrel #6: Fifth-fill Chambourcin red wine barrel that previously held our original barrel-aged pale ale, Measure Twice. That barrel was started with dregs from our collab with Free Will (Erma Extra), but along the way it was filled with bases that had dregs in primary from various American saisons (Casey and Holy Mountain).

Barrel #125: Second-fill Chardonnay white wine barrel that previously held a cider fermented with the Bootleg Biology Biology Mad Fermentationist Saison (plus we added the dregs from a stellar bottle of Barrique Wet Hop Reserve after filling).

6/21/23 116 gallons of beer from the two barrels transferred onto 5.5 pounds of 2022 Citra Cryo. 1.5 oz/gallon.

Carbonated to 2.05 vol, reyeasted with Premier Cuvee (rehydrated on a stir-plate with StartUp Nutrient), primed with enough glucose to add 1.1 vol of CO2 (~3.1 vol total in bottle). 

Final pH: 3.65

Final Gravity 1.009

7.1% ABV. 

Tasting Notes: Barrels of Rings

(My personal notes from a few months ago)

Smell - Nice blend of citrus (orange) and earthy-Bretty-funk. Still really fresh, no oxidative or old-hop aromatics. Really varied nose with a little pine sap, hay, and melon. Another hoppy base that got funkier than most of our bases. 

Appearance - Big dense white head, good retention. Light haze, very pale yellow.  Attractive. 

Taste - Light lemony tartness, but not sour-sour. Very saison-y. Some bitterness, but it doesn’t clash with the light bitterness. 

Mouthfeel - A touch of astringency. Great sptrizy carbonation. Medium-light body. 

Drinkability - Really nice. The bitterness does give it a different impression than a classic low-bitterness sour base. More saison-like. 

Changes for Next Time - Really good, not much to change on this one. Gin barrels would be fun. 

When visiting Epochal Barrel Fermented Ales in Scotland last year I was blown-away by how by how good (owner/brewer) Gareth Young's wild ales were aged on whole hops in the barrels for the entire secondary fermentation. I really enjoyed the first beer we did with it, Violet You're Turning Violet (Mosaic in the barrel, finished with a blend of wild and cultivated blueberries). It seems like a good option especially if you want variety in the hop intensity of a base, e.g., start with a more moderate hopped base and add hops to some barrels for blending options. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Did I Wreck Sour Beer in America?

My book, American Sour Beers, is turning ten next month! I wrote it from the perspective (and experience) of a homebrewer. I wanted to experiment and learn. I really didn't know much about brewing commercially, creating consistent blends, adapting recipes as a barrel program matured, developing flavors that would sell etc. Looking back I have to ask, did my book help launch 1,000 barrel programs, without providing the knowledge brewers actually needed to succeed?

Over the last decade American craft brewing had an explosion of breweries ramping up barrel-aged sour production, followed by a pretty rapid decline (including multiple mid-sized breweries closing their programs and sour-focused breweries closing). Part of that is the inherently less-predictable nature of mixed-fermentation (when you order a cherry sour beer, what are you expecting? Kriek, cherry juice, cherry vinegar etc.). Compare that to a bourbon-barrel vanilla-bean stout where you have a pretty good idea of what the intent was. I suspect at least part of it was the oversaturation of the market combined with the high prices.

Despite brewing my first sour beer in 2006, becoming a brewery consultant in 2011, writing a book in 2014, and opening a brewery in 2018... I haven't been consistently happy with the barrel-aged mixed-fermentations I made until the last couple years. I certainly never released a beer that I thought was bad, but there were certainly had batches that were too sour, muddled, under/over carbonated, or just didn't "pop." During that time we've also released some amazing beers that I still love!

At Sapwood Cellars we've relied on our local club members, and the people who walk in the door to buy ~10,000 bottles of barrel-aged sour beer a year. That may sound like a lot, but it's less than 5% of our production (and we're a pretty small brewery). There really hasn't been much interest in barrel-aged sour bottles in our limited distribution range. They tend to be beers that sell best when you can explain them directly to the drinker, rather than just have them sitting on a shelf! If only there was a way I could talk directly to beer drinkers interested in sour beer...

Rather than bury the lead more than I already have, Sapwood Cellars barrel-aged mixed-fermentation sours are now available for shipping within much of America through a Membership Club administered by Tavour! Shipping is available to: WA, CA, OR, NM, NV, CO, MN, NY, DC, CT, NE, MA, FL, PA, NH, NJ, ID, TX, KS, IN, WI, MO, IA, IL, MI, ND, VA, RI, NC, SC, and MD.

The first installment of the club is $146 (including shipping) for one 500 mL bottle each of six beers: 

Growth Rings 2023: Three-year-blend of barrel-aged Sours, essentially our cuvee of bases, barrels, and microbes showing off our house character. This one isn't refermented with wine yeast, so the dregs would be a good option if you are looking for microbes! It was the second highest-rated "Gueuze" on Untappd in 2023!

Barrels of Rings: Our pale ale base, mixed-fermented in wine barrels and then dry hopped right before bottling. Citrusy-funky with restrained acidity.

Jammiest Bit: Our homage to Hommage, a barrel-aged sour on loads of sour pie cherries and red raspberries. Fruity, funky, tart etc.

Botanicia: A blend of pale sours aged in gin barrels that we then infused with dried limes and quinine. A weird play on a gin-and-tonic... but with a lot more acidity and funk!

Elliptical Orbit 2023: A continuation of the "Dark Funky Saison" series still with my original collaborator and homebrew buddy Alex. For this one he roasted Geisha coffee beans and we infused the barrel-aged dark sour with Geisha cascara (dried coffee cherries). 

Fruit of Many Uses: We sequentially racked the same barrel-aged tart/funky base onto second-use Chardonnay wine grapes, cherries, raspberries, and white nectarines. All of the fruit was whole/local.

Over the next couple weeks I'll be posting my detailed tasting notes on each of the beers, along with recipes, lessons learned, and suggestions for brewing something similar at home! I'll repeat for each club release, assuming enough people sign-up for the club to make it viable. 

Over the last five years it isn't "one simple trick" we learned that improved our beer. It's the accumulation of 100 little things from ingredient selection, to blending, to process refinement, to equipment that we've figured out. It's sitting down with each beer, drinking, thinking, taking detailed notes, and iterating. So much of it is not doing it by myself, having Scott, Ken, and Spencer to push to do things I wouldn't have (Botanica was Ken's baby, and Barrels of Rings was Scott's). Both are delicious, and they are certainly beers I would not have brewed if it was all up to me!

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Are Thiols a Scam? Thiolized Yeast, Phantasm, and the Rise of Designer Beer

Thiols are the coolest thing in brewing hoppy beers since the invention of dry hopping. It seems like almost every collab Sapwood Cellars has been invited to brew over the last 18 months ends up "Thiolized": 3S4MP (Cosmic Punch IPA with Phantasm and Nelson Sauvin at Fidens), Cone Concentrate (Cosmic Punch DIPA with Simcoe at Other Half DC), Celestial Paradox (London Tropics IPA with Strata/Galaxy/Citra/Simcoe at Toppling Goliath), Yasokeee (Helio Gazer DIPA with Peacherine, Hydra, and Phantasm at Cushwa), and most recently Heisenberg (Helio Gazer DIPA with Galaxy/Nelson at Commonwealth).

So why all of the excitement from our fellow craft brewers? Obviously many of the collab requests are due to Scott's writing about and advocacy for thiols, but are they just something new that will be passé soon, or are these strains here to stay?

What Are Thiols?

Thiols are sulfur-containing compounds that are often potent aromatics. The ones brewers are excited about are tropical, winey, and citrusy, while other thiols are intensely unpleasant with aromas of garlic or rotten eggs... which is why the thiol mercaptan is added to natural gas to alert people to leaks. The "skunky" aroma of light-struck beer is also 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol.

Unlike many other beer aromatics that require concentrations in the ppm (parts per million) or ppb (parts per billion) many thiols have an aroma threshold in the range of 5-70 ppt (parts per trillion). This means that it doesn't take much of them to be apparent, but also means that it doesn't require "high" concentrations to become dominant. 

In terms of positive beer and wine aromatics, the thiols that get the most attention are 4MMP, 3MH, 3MHA, and 3S4MP. These have perceptions that range from passionfruit, to grapefruit, to rhubarb. These are the intense aromatics that give New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines their distinct aromas and are found free at low-levels in many New Zealand hops (as well as some other varieties from around the world).

Most of the thiols found in hops, malt, and other botanicals are bound and thus not active aromatically. Enzymes are required to free them. There are wine strains available capable of this, but getting those genes into brewer's yeast requires more work. 

Where Do Thiols Come From?

Bound thiols are found in both malt and hops, but levels vary widely. The bond in need of breaking comes in two "flavors" Cysteinylated (Cys) and Glutathionylated (Glu). The vast majority (90%+) in both malt and hops is Glu. The IRC7 gene in certain wine strains and Omega's Cosmic Punch can only work on the less common Cys. As a result, mash hops are most potentially beneficial for Cosmic Punch, as the enzymes in the mash (especially in the acid-protein rest temperature range) can help convert Glu to Cys. Luckily some less expensive hop varieties have the highest levels of bound thiols. We've used Saaz, Cascade, and Calypso with good results.

The more intense strains like Berkeley Yeast Tropics line and Omega's Helio Gazer, Star Party, and Lunar Crush can simply be added to a standard recipe with or without whirlpool hops. Rather than having more copies of the IRC7 gene, they have a wholly different gene which can free Glu-thiols directly. The IRC7 gene in Cosmic Punch is "sourced" from yeast, while patB Omega uses in the more assertive strains is from a bacteria (if transgenic CRISPR/Cas9 gene modification is a step too far for you). We fermented a kettle sour which only had a small dose of hexalone (isomerized hop extract for head retention) with London Tropics. The result was intensely passion-fruity, so much so that it could almost pass a fruit beer. 

GM (genetically modified) yeast strains aren't allowed in commercial beers in many countries (e.g., Canada, New Zealand). As a result there are labs working with wild isolates capable of freeing thiols for co-fermentations (e.g., CHR Hansen - it is primarily marketed for NA beers) and breeding strains with heightened thiol freeing capabilities (e.g., Escarpment). Omega initially worked on yeast breeding between English ale and a wine strain capable of freeing thiols... our trials with it (Designer Baby) were interesting, but had too much of the wine strain's idiosyncrasies present (poor flocculation especially). 

Pros & Cons of Thiol-Expressing Yeast

-Intense aromatics that are otherwise impossible to achieve from hops, malt, and yeast
-Thiols have incredibly low aroma thresholds... measured in ppt (parts per trillion)
-Thiols are "free" no expensive hops or fruit required
-Thiols may help increase shelf-life by scavenging oxygen

-Higher perceived "sulfur" aromatics are frequent in thiol-freeing strains
-Some brewers/consumers/countries prefer to avoid GM ingredients
-Thiols can be "one note"... is it really that different from adding a jar of passion fruit extract?
-Repitching the yeast doesn't make as much sense if you also want to brew English Ales, Porters/Stouts etc. 

More isn't (always) Better

Initially there was a focus on maximizing thiol concentration. This could include colder fermentation temperatures, mash hops, and engineering strains with more assertive genes. Like most aspects of brewing (or cooking) maximizing a single flavor compound doesn't usually result in the best overall flavor or balance. 

Thiols aren't typically a "primary" aromatic in beer, so a beer with over-the-top thiol concentration without anything to play off of can taste artificial. On the other hand, some of our heavily dry hopped DIPAs have tested at over 100X the flavor threshold for 3MH and still weren't the primary aroma thanks to competition from the "traditional" hop aromatics. From those test, I wouldn't worry about dry hopping removing all of the thiols.

As a general rule, I'd suggest using a more restrained approach to thiols in lighter/cleaner/simpler beers. It doesn't take much to add a unique twist to a lager or American wheat, where a double-dry-hopped DIPA or fruit beer may benefit from a much higher amount. In the end it's about your palate and goals for a beer. 

In my experience expressing thiols doesn't make every hoppy beer better. They add a distinct note that can greatly enhance the perception of passionfruit-type aromatics. That is a wonderful contribution when you are leaning into those flavors, but can be distracting or muddle other flavors. For example, I love the "mango popsicle" aroma of great Simcoe. However, with one of the intense strains like London Tropics or Helio Gazer in an all-Simcoe beer can become more generically "tropical" rather than varietal "mango." On the other hand, when dry hopping with passion-fruity Galaxy, or brewing with actual passionfruit the thiol note helps to enhance the existing aromatics. 


Hand-in-hand with thiol-expressing yeast goes Phantasm. It is essentially the dried and powdered remnants of the highest-thiol New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc grapes. As a result it comes with a high price-tag of ~$35/lb. It really doesn't smell like much before fermentation. Added to the whirlpool it adds a huge amount of bound thiols for the yeast to work on. 

During fermentation I detect a distinct "white grape" flavor and aroma that I don't get from other thiol-expressing ferments that rely on grain and hops alone for bound precursors. A lot of this drops out with the yeast however and the finished beers are rarely as distinct. To my palate the added expense is hard to justify in a highly-dry-hopped beer where the thiols are competing against other big aromatics. Unless you lean into those aromatics with a hop like Nelson Sauvin. I like Phantasm best when it is paired with actual white wine grapes, or in a simple base where it can star. 

We haven't used Berkely Yeast's "Thiol Boost" additive yet... but I'm just not that excited about a 15X increase on the already intense London Tropics level of 3MH. I'd be interested in herbs or additives that could push other unique thiol aromatics that we aren't getting from grain/hops. 

My Favorite Thiolized Batches

At Sapwood Cellars, we've brewed a few dozen batches between Cosmic Punch, London Tropics, Lunar Crush, and experimental isolates. I've enjoyed most of them, but a handful stand-out as beers I loved!

Cosmic Rings: Galaxy and Citra is one of our favorite combinations... but we have had a difficult time sourcing great Galaxy (that doesn't taste like honey roasted peanuts). This all-Citra double-dry-hopped pale ale starts with New Zealand Taiheke (Cascade) in the mash and kettle. It's one of our favorite whirlpool hops because it is low alpha acid and has a beautiful tropical aroma... not to mention a lower price compared to other New Zealand varieties like Nelson Sauvin and Riwaka. Then we ferment with Omega's Cosmic Punch which brings some tropical aromatics without becoming distracting or artificial. Finally we dry hop with Citra and Citra Cryo at a combined 3 lbs/bbl.

Tropical Pop: Kettle sour fermented with Berkeley Yeast London Tropics along with passion fruit and mango purees. Passion fruit is expensive, fermenting with London Tropics boosted the passion fruit aroma allowing us to use less without sacrificing the aroma intensity.

Field Learning: As a homebrewer I loved being able to dump a bottle of thiol-rich New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc into a keg of mixed-ferm saison. That wouldn't be legal commercially, but what we did for this collab with Bissell Brothers was to brew a restrained base with Hallertau Blanc in the mash and Phantasm in the whirlpool and age it in fresh Sauvignon Blanc barrels along with Bissell's house culture. After a year we added fresh Chardonnay grapes from Crow Vineyards here in Maryland. The tropical notes from the thiols survived barrel aging and gave the beer depth we wouldn't have gotten from grapes and barrel alone.


Are thiols a scam? No, but they also aren't an innovation that fundamentally changes what it takes to make a delicious beer. Consider a thiol-freeing yeast when additional passionfruit-type aromatics will enhance your beer. Don't worry about maximizing the thiols unless you they will be competing against other strong aromatics. 

I suspect that this is just the lead in to even more exotic genetically modified yeast strains (we have a pitch of Berkeley's Sunburst Chico which is modified to express high levels of pineapple-y ethyl butyrate). If you can produce a flavor compound without the cost, environmental impact, variability of growing it I suspect the economic pressures will be too great! That said, making delicious beers isn't about maximizing one or two compounds (in the same way that vanilla flavoring is inexpensive, but doesn't fully replace the depth and complexity of real vanilla beans). 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Lessons from Five Years of Bugs, Barrels, and Brewing

This July marks five years since I left my day job with the federal government to brew full-time. We filled our first barrel with mixed-fermentation saison before opening the tasting room at Sapwood Cellars. Since then, we are up to 80 oak barrels with a dedicated suite for mixed-fermentation. So, I thought it would be a good time to sit down and reflect on the lessons that Scott and I have learned over the years! The things we got right, the things we got wrong, and where we are going from here!

Luckily, we've had a pretty good run so far! We've cultivated a great group of supporters in our Wood Club. Neologism (gin-barrel-aged Cascade/Simcoe Cryo dry-hopped pale sour) was named one of Craft Beer & Brewing's Top-20 beers of 2022 by way of winning a massive blind tasting. Despite the pandemic we've been able to modestly expand (production, staff, and space)! We're even shipping beers around the US through Tavour!

I recently realized that Google discontinued Feedburner in 2021... which is why you haven't gotten an email from me in a while. I've changed The Mad Fermentationist over to a new email service, so if you've signed up you should get emails for new posts going forward! If you want more emails from me, I write the near-weekly Sapwood Newsletter (with details on new beers often including info on ingredients, process, and equipment)!

The Things We Got Right

Diverse Microflora - It is certainly simpler to have a single "house" culture. It allows for relatively worry-free blending, but doesn't leave as much room for unique flavors. Maintaining multiple cultures, we have to worry about the microbes from one barrel over-attenuating in the bottle if they are more attenuative than others in the blend. However, the variety of flavors expressed and the options for blending is worth the effort at our scale. We've been even happier since we started selecting our favorite barrels and using them to inoculate subsequent batches. Now we can select which character fits a pale sour vs. a sour red. 

Last week we blended our second batch of Growth Rings (three year blend). To ensure all the microbes have time to get to know each other, we blended the four barrels (all different pale base beers) into a tote. They'll sit there for a couple months to ensure the gravity is stable before priming and bottling. 

Balancing Planning and Creativity - We started 2023 with a rough timeline of the 20 or so barrel-aged mixed-ferm we'll release. However, when we fill barrels there generally isn't a specific plan for which barrel will be in which beer. Pale, wine-barrel-aged beer can be delightful on it's own, or serve as a great base of fruit, herbs, or dry hopping. When we taste them, we get to decide what will make the best possible beer. However, it's also nice to have unique bases/barrels earmarked for a particular purpose. Some examples of those include Opulence (sour red with dried sour cherries in the bourbon and red wine barrels), a Brett'd Belgian Tripel in Calvados (apple brandy), or Port barrels for There Are No Edges (Vin de Céréale).

Tracking Barrels - Using Google Sheets has worked out well for us. I can sort based on fill date, final gravity, base beer etc. It allows me to sit on my couch at home and look at what beers we have in need of fruit, blending, packaging etc. Barrels still fall through the cracks (nothing is more heartbreaking than tasting a barrel that is old/stale and seeing a note about how good it was six months ago). Sometimes a beer is delicious, it just doesn't fit into a blend.

Blending with Others - Whether it is our tasting room manager (Spencer), Lead Brewer (Ken), homebrewing friends, fellow brewers (e.g., the brewers from Other Half for a collab) etc. Tasting barrels with other people helps improve your palate, riff on ideas, and make more broadly appealing results. We all have flavor "blind spots" and it is a good idea to have other people looking too. It's fun to riff off other people's ideas and come up with flavor combinations that neither of you would have made on your own. 

Packaging - Our general approach to packaging has been a big success... once we started measuring the dissolved CO2 in the beer rather than relying on time/temperature/pressure. We blend barrels or transfer fruited beers to our blending tank and cold crash. The day before bottling we'll push in sugar (boiled in water) along with Premier Cuvee champagne yeast (rehydrated with a small amount of Start-Up/GoFerm nutrient). We then carbonate the beer to ~2 vol of CO2, with the sugar and yeast taking the beer the rest of the way. We fill on a bottler (XpressFill) that purges and counter-pressure fills. So far it's resulted in relatively quick/clean refermentations with reliable carbonation. 

The Things We Got Wrong

Not Allocating Time - It is easy to put-off barrel-aged beers for more pressing concerns. When there are DIPAs to dry hop, Pilsners to can, and excises taxes to exercise the sour beers are often pushed to the side. It's rare that a week or two of aging in one direction or another makes a dramatic difference... but it's hard to get the most out of a barrel program if it is always at the bottom of the priority list. We're getting better at it, but I still wish from the start I'd blocked off a specific time/day each week to taste barrels, trial blends, source ingredients, prop microbes etc. 

Over-Correcting - Initially we weren't getting enough acidity in some of our beers, so we started pulling levers... colder rinsing barrels, lower hopping rates etc. Then our beers started becoming too sour, so we started veering back in the other direction. Managing a barrel program is like driving a cruise ship, it is difficult to pivot quickly! It's difficult to step back and tell if there is something causing one specific batch from being too sour (or not sour enough) or if there is a systemic issue. 

I think we would have been well served to do a better mix starting early (some barrels cold or no-rise, more with just Brett etc.). This would have given us more options when it came to blending over- or under-soured beers. 

Appreciating the Impact of Fruit On Acidity - Early on to help out some of those under-acidified beers, we went onto fruit. I was surprised how little additional acidity they picked up from refermentation. Sure adding a really acidic fruit (e.g., black currants for Fellow Feeling) contributed acidity, but just refermenting on wine grapes or peaches did not. However, as our cultures "matured" we suddenly had beers dropping from a tart pH of 3.5 to an obnoxiously-acidic 3.0 after going onto the fruit (2.8 pH was the lowest I measured). That's despite pitching rehydrated wine yeast to ensure a healthy and quick refermentation. 

I thought maybe our resident lactic acid bacteria were becoming more hop tolerant, and the dilution of the beer with fruit was allowing them to kick into action. To test this we began adding a small amount of hop extract with the fruit (we use a 20% alpha extract from Hopsteiner). Our fruited beers stopped dropping pH nearly as much, and as an added benefit the head retention improved considerably. 

Hot Side Hopping - I didn't appreciate how much of the classic funky lambic/saison profile originates with the hops. While we've always used a "restrained" dose of aged hops at the start of the boil (~.5 lbs/bbl), that just wasn't enough to give the beers the aromatic depth I was looking for. Recently we've been experimenting with a similar size whirlpool addition of cold-stored hops. So far the results are promising! I should have noticed that many of my favorite homebrewed Brett Saisons had big whirlpool additions and/or dry hopping... but those were all relatively quick turn-around and not barrel-aged. I'm glad Scott and Ken pushed to age some of our pale ales (pre-dry hopping) in barrels, an idea I wasn't excited about... but the results have been really delicious!

Where We Are Headed

Barrel-aged sour beer seems to be a wide/shallow market at the moment. The people who love them are still searching them out, but the average beer drinker seems to have moved on to less "challenging" more "reliable" styles. It's hard to know how much the rapid expansion of the segment played into this loss of interest. I've heard of quite a few breweries down-sizing or eliminating barrel-aged sour beers... Luckily we still have 150 people in our Wood Club, which is a great way for us to get these beers into the hands of our biggest supporters and a base-level of sales for eight releases a year. We're aiming to make our mixed-ferm beers more "delicious" the sorts of beers that people want to drink a whole bottle of, not just drink an ounce or two at a share. 

However, as we've ramped up the mixed-ferm bottle release schedule (2019 - 8, 2020 -11, 2021 - 13, 2022 - 16, and hopefully ~20 in 2023) we occasionally have bottles to spare. Rather than distribute them locally, we've partnered with Tavour (which ships to many states).  They just released Homegrown Rule, a "Marylanbic" base with homegrown lemon verbena (from my yard) and pineapple sage (from Ken's garden). It's tart and snappy, with plenty of our house microbe character, augmented by the citrusy-green notes of the herbs.